Sunday, July 24, 2011

Postcard from Lebanon

You want buy gun now?

The proprietor of my local Milk Bar in St.Kilda is a Lebanese man in his fifties named Frank. Frank is short, thickset, mostly unshaven, often in shorts and thongs and always looks unhappy. Frank grimaces rather than smiles. He calls regulars “mite” but he says it like a threat. Frank is generally bitching about something, how the local prostitutes steal from him and the attitudes of the Irish backpackers or the rise of street crime.

One night a few months ago, late from work, I dropped in to pick up some milk and in the shop is a young woman, attractive, dishevelled, early twenties, confused. Her hands are trembling and her body tense, her hair is messed and maybe she slept rough last night. She is wearing a short lime green cardigan which looks odd over her pale floral cotton dress. The girl is asking Frank the where she can stay. Frank doesn’t do help so I ask if I can assist. The girl’s mental health doesn’t look so good and at the moment I am guessing that she is spiralling, looking for something to hold on to and afraid. In the wild in Kenya I once saw a male gazelle walking toward a lion, he knew the lion was watching and he wanted to see if the lion was hunting or if he could graze in peace. So he kept walking closer and closer, it was the weirdest thing. This kid knows she is getting closer to her craziness and she doesn’t know whether to be afraid or not, so she is tense, scared and walking in to it all the same.

I ask the girl what she wants to do and she says she wants to find backpackers hostel to stay in. So I buy her a carton of chocolate milk and I take her big red hard plastic suit case and put it on the back seat of my Volkswagen and we drive to a backpacker place up on Chapel St. The girl goes in and comes out and says it is full, and we go to another place on Fitzroy St. The girl goes in and comes back and says it is full as well. And after several more hostels I ask her what she wants to do. It is getting late and we have been driving around for an hour. I talk her into going back to her Grandmothers place which is where she says she has been staying. I know the street near Ripponlea Station and we drive there and I drop her off. As I see it, all of us are on a continuum of mental health, not good or bad, just better or worse and the girl has the right to make her own decisions.

We stop at a californian bungalow on Oak St and she goes up the path to the front door and I drive off but park 200 meters up and watch my rear view mirror. In a few minutes the girl comes back out through the gate to the street, dragging that big old heavy plastic suitcase, her determined little body leans forward against the weight. I wonder if it really was her grandmothers and anyway she just wanted to do something different. In the dark she has more courage than me. I wonder if there is something more I can do. She needs help but I don’t feel it is right to take her home to my house and I know she is not sick enough for a CAT team. I drive off feeling confused and unsure.

Next day I drop in to the Milk Bar and tell Frank that I tried to help the girl but ran out of options and took her back to her Grandmothers. Frank says “Mite why didn’t you just take her home and !V<% her”. Frank says it sharp, he means it, he seems to resent me for not trying to take advantage of her. Like I said, Frank doesn’t do help.

“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be processed; for love is sufficient unto love.” Today I am in Lebanon, the home of Frank from the Milk Bar and also the land of the great poet, mystic and artist Kahlil Gibran. Lebanon stretches 150 km end to end and is about 50 km wide. The Mediterranean laps up against its western coast, its southern border is with Israel and the rest of the county is surrounded by Syria. Damascus is less than 100km from Beirut.

I am here for work. We are involved in youth initiatives for young people in the Palestine refugee camps. Some camps have been there since 1948. The camp we visit is really a small city, a patchwork chaos of concrete houses pressed in against narrow lane ways and streets. The tangled spaghetti mess of electrical wires go from house to house room to room all external and at head height so you have to duck and you know some must be live. In this one camp last year during the rains thirteen people died, electrocuted from live water streaming of the wires into the lane ways. The travel advisories all say the camps are unsafe for visitors because of kidnappings and extremists. But there is no feeling of danger as families go about their business and young men stare with curiosity not hostility at the western visitor. I am afraid that my grandchildren will say to me, “what did you do when the Palestinians were being persecuted, did you learn nothing from what happened to the Jews in Hitler’s Germany?"

On my day off I have arranged to have a look around. The taxi driver I hired is named Fouad, which he proudly tells me means “heart”. Later on I forget his name and just call him Mr Heart. The late model Nissan saloon smells like an ash tray. Right now we are on our way to Byblos, which is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world, going back over seven thousand years when it was used by fisherman and sheep and goat herders. It is my first time in Beirut and as we drive along the main north south road through the city, I still can’t get over how almost every building has shell and small arms fire pockmarks on at least one wall. Often there is distinct shell peppering around a window and I imagine that there was a sniper there once whose life was changed forever during one of the civil wars or invasions of the last thirty years. I read some of a local newsprint guide book in print since the 70’s and come to know that Lebanon, one of the smallest counties on earth with a population of just over four million, has been ruled by just about everyone; this is including but not limited to the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Egyptians , Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, Muslim Arabs, the Crusaders, who lost it to the famous Saladin, who lost it to Cyprus who lost it back to the Muslim hordes, who lost it to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, then back to the Egyptians, back to the Turks, then the French, then back to the Turks, , then the Allies in WW1, then the French again, then back to the Allies in WW2. And since independence there has been more or less been constant conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Muslims and the Christians and some organisation called Druze, a faith in which three quarters of their two hundred and fifty thousand loyal followers, are not allowed to know what they believe in. I am wondering what this means for a sense of identity. The history and the politics here are just too complex for me to get a handle on. And I am thinking that actually the history and politics everywhere are too complex for me to get a handle on and I am wondering whether it is important to even try. I see no evidence around me to suggest that Santayana’s statement, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, is true, in fact it is those who focus on their history that most seem to have trouble moving forward. I am thinking it is just as likely that the future is forged by those who survive and keep on moving, like Lots wife, looking back can be a problem. I mean birds presumably don’t lose any sleep grieving ‘once we were dinosaurs’.

I say to Fouad,
“Lebanon is wonderful, the mountains are breathtaking, the men are handsome the woman are beautiful, the food is rich and delicious and people are so friendly. Your country has been beaten up by every other country in the region for seven thousand years why isn’t Lebanon neutral like Switzerland.“

Fouad’s dark eyes fixed me in the rear view mirror and he said louder than he needs to,” Because every Lebanese people is stupid.......every 15 years they make it war”.

We pass a supermarket sized Berretta gun shop with dummies wearing camouflage suits in the lit windows and holding high power rifles with long magazines and there is big stuffed deer with antlers.

I point to the shop and say, “Is there any game to shoot”

Fouad’s face lights up and he becomes animated and says, “You want buy gun now?”

“No, I am just interested is there anything to shoot in Lebanon except people?”

“Now just bard. “ he says somewhat sadly


Fouad flaps his elbows impatiently as he drives “bard....bard”

“Are still any deer”

“All gone”,

“What about pigs?”

“All gone, just bards now”.

And I am thinking hitting a bird with that high powered rifle in the window would be like hitting a hitting a man with an anti tank rocket, wouldn’t be much left, but ....... we pass more buildings with bucket sized rocket scars.

So many apartments, office blocks and hotels sit gutted, rooms and parts of rooms exposed or missing, frequently on one corner the upper floor is folded against the level below, other buildings seem abandoned and then alongside themthing some brand new. Most buildings are two and three storeys with the top floor unfinished waiting for the next generation to add another storey to the expectant concrete pillars and rusty reinforcing steel sprouting out of the top floors like bad hair.

In Afghanistan during the late seventies, before the Russians went in, I was in the hills near Musarsharif watching the Pashtun game of buzkashi. Horsemen drag a headless goat around a field and you can’t predict where the reckless bravery of the riders will take the game. You are squatting on a dusty rock strewn slope in the sun and your heart is racing, your muscles are tense and you know that this game has no exact field of play and every rider is out for themselves and you are there at your own risk and you are not playing, but you are in it all the same. Lebanon is like that.

In the centre of the Lebanese national flag is the picture of the famous Lebanese Cedar . Fouad tells me the two existing remaining old growth cedar forests are not worth visiting “don’t go, the forests are finish and very bad but new tree coming”. I get the sense that Fouad thinks that the last seven thousand years has been a rehearsal for Lebanon’s eventual greatness, like an aging spinster with no suitor preparing for a wedding, all expectant and almost believable.

We reach Biblos and park at the old souk of cobbled stone lanes and curved stone archways. I wander from there down the hill past some roman looking pillars in a field, past a little cave grotto with people praying outside, to the old harbour. It is a natural inlet the size of a soccer field filled with twenty or so small fishing boats, The port is partly surrounded by Greek and Roman ruins including a small tower one side of the mouth. I take a table at Pepi’s Biblos Fishing Club which overlooks the harbour.

This restaurant was made famous by the glitterati who visited during the 1960s, before the civil war. On the wall are pictures of Pepi in a sea captains hat surrounded by presidents, politicians and film stars. Anita Ekberg, Kim Novak and Ginger Rogers in black and white behind big texta autographs on photo paper rippled with age an moisture. I stand beneath the flotsam ceiling of the glass floats, nets and cray fishing baskets that have been painted and made in to lamp shades, I stand where the dead Stars stood look at the view of the small harbour. I wait for my seafood lunch alone except for a German tourist who is messing with his big Canon camera.

I walk back up the hill and when Fouad sees me he guiltily puts out another fag and though I have paid him for the day he bustles around the car, opening the passenger door for me like he can’t wait to leave. “You want go now?” he says expectantly. But I just leave my heavy camera and go to the market and by a piece of flat shale with a fossilised fish the size of sardine embedded in it. The fossil comes a certificate which attests to its authenticity as an extinct species over one hundred million years old.

When I return to Melbourne I give the rock with fish to my mother who passes it around to the other ladies at ‘mix and munch’ at the outer suburbs retirement village where she lives. And everyone is amazed by the stark perfect skeletal relief of the tiny hairlike bones and no one can picture what one hundred million means. And so I tell my Mum that if every year was one millimetre then a meter would represent one thousand years and so that makes Jesus two meters away and the ruins at Biblos seven meters and the life of that fish a one hundred kilometres. And I have no idea what this really means and Mum looks at me troubled, like she doesn’t recognise me. And I am thinking how mad it is for that sea fish in shale, chiselled out of a mountain 800 metres above sea level in Lebanon with a history that can be described as 100 kilometres long can turn up in a suburban living room in Melbourne. I am contemplating that maybe it is better to drag our big old red suitcase out into the night into a new future than trying to make too much sense of where we came from.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

In Praise of Dreams

Postcard from Solomon Islands

We are sitting in a circle on white plastic moulded chairs on the sand. I am in Honiara with a group of Solomon Islanders, they are speaking of high youth unemployment, few jobs and little money, of feelings of alienation about the past, about the current power structures which tend to shut young adults out of decision making, of no real sense of a better future and of cheap plentiful alcohol. There is an elderly woman in the group, sitting in a pink chair, her lips and teeth are stained with beetle nut, she doesn’t speak English and she is wearing a tee-shirt that says, Social Hazard - Will Not Conform, and on her in this moment it looks right for her, and it looks right for us.

We are here to talk about what to do. I don’t have the answer and they don’t either but that we are talking about it as thought the discussion and the answers matter, is a start. No different from anywhere in the world, who am I and what will I do? Who are we and what will we do?

Next day I decide to find out what some children in this community think. And at my request we go to a school where some colleagues know the teachers. Here are village children, whose families are not wealthy but they have enough to provide their kids with the basic uniforms and books. There are about 25 village boys and girls; I guess the average age is around ten years old. They stare at me wide eyed. I greet them and ask some questions and they respond in whispers like wind in grass and I can’t make sense of what they are saying. The staff is looking at me as if to say, “this is going well.......not”. So I collect all the adults and divide the kids into small group with an adult to shepherd and ask them two questions. What would they like to do when they leave school, what are likely challenges they think they will face? The answers that emerge are probably the answers that one would expect from kids in any school in the West. Three of these kids want to be doctors, two want to be airline pilots, two want to be lawyers, one an architect , two policemen, several want to be nurses, a couple teachers, one wants to be a carpenter and another a farmer. The challenges they express are whether their parents will have money, whether there will be peace in their homes, whether there will be less violence, less stealing, less drinking. In our culture we celebrate dreams, there is apparently an American dream somewhere in the DNA of 360 million Americans - God Bless America and the American people. And I am thinking that the chances of most of these little ones finishing form four is small, and the chances of them attending a university or college are infinitesimally small. And so what of these youthful dreams? Should these children be discouraged from having them? Will they be wounded by them? Does it make sense to even have such dreams?

American author Dave Pollard[1] writes, “When things are hopeless - Give up hope, embrace hopelessness, it makes sense.” A Tibetan yogi once said of dreams; “ like the birds that gather in the treetops at night, and scatter in all directions at the coming of the dawn”[2].

The late American author Joe Bageant said in one of his Blogs “Hope is for little kids and tooth fairies” and living in a Mexican village he spoke often about the satisfaction that people there had with their world and how in his view the western idea of hope and aspirations added nothing to their lives.

“.... in the morning the roosters crow, and wood smoke stirs in the air, and this village wakes up, and does all those ancient things decent people do in so much of the rest of the world. Old women sweep the street in front of their doorways, men uncomplainingly go in search of a day's labour, and young mothers nurse babies in the courtyards, full knowing that what they see around them is all there will ever be for them, and that the Virgin of Guadeloupe blesses each morning. Just as their mothers and grandmothers knew it. Already they are tired for the world. But not joyless......... Hope is for little kids and tooth fairies. The world we awaken to each morning is the only real thing there is. And if we are spiritually, morally and philosophically intact, and humble enough to feel it and love it each day, we don't need to hope some unseen force or bunch of politicos, or an "economy" or so-called leaders are gonna make it better for us. The orchids outside my doorway are blooming and my wife still loves me after all these years.”

Call me naive, but I thought saying “hope springs eternal in the human breast” was from the Bible, God telling us something about how we were made. But that is not right, it comes from the poem “An Essay on Man” written in 1734 by the poet Alexander Pope. I don’t know anything about Pope except that he is not God and I am thinking that he probably didn’t know much more about the qualities of hope in poor communities than I do, and that is not much.

[1] Author. 2007 author Finding the Sweet Spot: A Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work (2007) Blog: How to Save the World, [2] Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol Tibetan Yogi (1781-1851)

Friday, April 1, 2011

When you have no choice

Postcard from Kenya

I am flying into Nairobi from Dubai, I have been in the air for twenty hours since leaving Melbourne, twenty eight hours since I locked the door of my apartment. The TV screen on the centre aisle bulkhead shows map of East Africa and the position of our jet between Kisumu and Nairobi, there are a smattering of other familiar names and places, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mombasa and further down Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar. The text on the screen reads Nairobi 29 mins. I slept for a total of around four hours and so have joined “the thousand yard stare club”.

There was a five hour stopover in Dubai where I caught up on emails in the Emirates lounge and made Cappuccinos from a machine with more buttons than a flight deck. In the air, I watched four or five movies, they merge into each otherm, a collage of past lives and dreaming and now I am having flashbacks, like pop up boxes, lifetimes of well meaning people making dumb choices, betraying each other in unhappy romances with predictable endings, the man and woman who can’t stand each other, until their best friends die leaving them a baby to try to raise together, the Woody Allen Movie where half a dozen people’s lives become increasingly precarious as their various dreams implode. Please turn off all electronic devices, stow your tray tables, bring your seats to the upright position, and open the window shades. I look to window, blinding bright after timeless lounge light of the cabin, I squint through the glare and the terrain below takes from, a crazy web of dirt roads etched white on the beige brown Kenyan landscape.

The plane makes one very steep bank and then another, shudders a little as it slows, banks again slicing the sky like the sweep of a blade and straightens for the last decent. The city of Nairobi, buildings in a haze are out to the left and an arid expanse, as far as the eye can see, to the right. I don’t understand the need for these steep banking manoeuvres but it is always the same. There are special people waiting for me in Kenya, people I love and I my heart swells a little when I think of some of my meetings over the next few weeks. I wonder if hearts only break through love.

A few days later in Nairobi I am with my friend Nimo and carrying six one litre bottles of spring water the kilometre back from the supermarket to the hotel. It is hot; the air is thick with the diesel fumes from noisy, badly maintained city busses. It is hard to talk above the noise of the traffic, trumpeting horns, and the cries from Matatu touts. The sidewalk is uneven and the plastic supermarket bag is cutting into my fingers.

Finally we reach the hotel, go to the open air cafe and order tea. Nimo is a beautiful Kikuyu woman working with an NGO in Nairobi, she has coffee coloured skin, platted braids in her hair, almond tiger bright eyes and a laugh like a bird’s song. It is so good to sit, to put the water down, to watch the busy street life rather than being part of it.

“That was heavy” I say, opening and closing my hand to get the circulation back.

“I am glad.... “ I pause, “You know the women I have talked about at Ndabibi?” Nimo nods. “They carry 20 litres three or four kilometres and often a child as well, every day, sometimes twice.......whether they feel like it, or not. I have just realised in a new way how hard that must be.”

Nimo says: “When you have no choice, you must be so strong”. She says it flat, the way you can say things if you know they are true today and still true tomorrow. Nimo is from a village and carried water as a child.

Nimo’s statement sits somewhere in me, stuck in the space between my brain and the back of my eyes. We sit without talking; the roar of the city surrounds us.

The streetscape is a thing alive, a mass of dark skinned humanity. A man in a white short sleeved shirt so unhurried as to be almost slow motion, another making long purposeful strides, one moving faster, quick and out of step with the throng, turning his body left and right, a matador in the crowd. A women in a bold African print, some hawkers selling magazines, sunglasses, maps and bright sun umbrellas, fasces eager, resigned, hopeful ,hopeless, I begin to ponder what separates them from me? But it is too noisy to think. A Mhindi[1] in a suit passes, he is wearing a gold watch and chain around his neck. He is nowhere near as invisible as he probably thinks, perhaps he is a visitor, and unlikely he will have the neck chain for long, even here downtown. A small gang of street urchins swarms around a middle aged couple, Mzungu[2] tourists, red faced and flustered, lost looking.

Later I am thinking about what Nimo said, “When you have no choice you have to be strong”. I have a feeling that my own multitude of choices often undermines my ability to be strong and to do wholeheartedly what is necessary and just and healthy and true. So often I have the luxury to do what I feel like doing, in my sophistication my conscience has become something to “take responsibility” for. As I think about this now, feeling like doing something is just one way of deciding what to do and how to act and actually I may make better decisions if I didn’t relate so closely to what I feel and instead I just do what needs to be done. Thoughts about lilies and birds and sowing and reaping and growing and toiling and spinning all somehow adding up to some kind of encouragement to be present, or in Swahili Hakuna matata; “there are no worries”.

Some of my work in Kenya’s Rift Valley is an area we call Wema , we work with communities in two areas, one is Weseges and the other Maji tamu and we have combined the two names. Weseges people are primarily Kalenjin and in Maji tamu the people are mostly Kikuyu. They are traditional rivals and at times there has been violence between them. We are meeting in a hut with a tin roof, concrete floor and split log walls. Bright light shines through spaces between the logs like halogen in the half light of the room. The windows have no glass but shutters for lock up. It is like the hut in a Wild West movie and has recently been taken over by the Waseges committee on loan from the local government and the group has renovated it. They have installed a 2 meter square blackboard at one end and the room is filled with white plastic moulded chairs. The group proudly tells me they purchased the chairs from membership contributions. I am meeting with around 25 men and women who comprise management committees from the two economic empowerment groups. Normally I ask them to tell me what has happened in each of their group’s during the six or so months since I last visited.

Getting a true sense of what is happening can be awkward as the achievements for one group in some areas may overshadow the other and there is an unspoken competitiveness. This time I decided to try something different. I made a vertical chalk line on the blackboard and at one point put ‘Start’and the other end I put “Now”. And then I asked all those present to help me plot the achievements of the last 3 years. And from their own history it emerged that they saw the first year was about dreaming what might be possible, the second year was dealt with difficulties and disappointments including many resignations within the committees and some confusion about direction. And then when we came to the third year there were so many actions and achievements that there was hardly space enough to write everything in. And I joked that is seemed like a marriage; the first year was the honey moon, the second year we realised the reality of our choices and that our choice to work together was not going to be easy, commitment and faithfulness were required not just dreaming. And the third year was when the babies came and now it was our work to nourish and build what we had created. And there was a great explosion of laughter and adn little speeches by various members about the truth of this.

And I said, “Do you remember when I had first come and you said “Mzungu, tell us what we should do” and you looked at me expectantly with you notebooks out and the pens ready? "

Heads nodded and faces lit up, there were smiles and a hum of agreement

And I asked them,

“Does anyone think now this Mzungu can tell you anything about what you should do?” And we all laughed and laughed, like it was the silliest thing in the world.

This may seem a very small thing, but I treasure these small diamonds that shine unexpectedly from hard rough ground. Here and with these people I seem to know what to do.

Back in Nakuru I am staying at Merica Hotel, it is owned by a former politician and is the best hotel in town. I am sitting in the lobby waiting for a friend and there is an African wildlife documentary on the big screen TV. It is soon apparent that this is the story of the dry season and of a crocodile filled water hole that is slowly drying up. There is no commentary it is simply a visual account of the helplessness and horror of the animals that are forced to come and drink. I watch as a mother baboon has its baby snatched from her arms by a crocodile and she fights the croc and so lovingly retrieves the dying baby that it brings tears to my eyes, an antelope so perfect in its shape and colouring, black body stripe against its svelte beige body, ventures timidly for a drink and has its head bitten off by another croc. A young monkey loses its arm as it tries to get a mouth of water, it escapes confused skin hanging where its left arm used to be. And

I am thinking that there is much that is not benign or romantic or beautiful about this planet, it is really a very violent and savage place. And that things are not like this because of something I have done, not my original sin, not even what my people have done or not done. But I can make choices which may make things better.

I talked with Nimo on the phone this morning. Nimo shares an apartment with her sister and brother in law, in Nairobi’s Eastlands, she says it is safe enough during the day but it is not safe to be out after 9pm. This morning when Nimo stepped onto the rough dirt road on her way to work, there was a mob and two young men lay there, ragged and bloody. One was dead, the other barely conscious, an outstretched arm clawing at the ground, as though to drag his body forward. It was only 7am Tuesday morning. They had snatched a local woman’s mobile phone and been chased by the mob and stoned. Nimo told me she had to pass within a few metres of the young man who was still just alive.

She said “The image of this boy is burned on my mind and I can’t get it out”.

Nimo soon found out from her sister that this young man also died.

Nimo said, “Okay was very wrong what they did but who could tell how they were loved as children and okay they were wrong but the young men who stoned them are poor and just like them as well”.

And I am thinking it is so unfair that she must now carry this image like a wound.

There are two fundamental questions posed by many sages. “Who am I? And how will I live?”[3] And I think who are we, what will we do? St Augustine[4] of Hippo’s definition of a community is “a multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love”. I am worried about what my community loves. I am worried by what I love. I am wondering if too many times, I am giving myself too many choices about how to live and what to do. [1] An Indian, literally “the one who speaks Hindi” [2] Swahili for white men and women, derived from “the one who looks lost” [3] Who am I?" became a famous self enquiry and teaching given by the Hindu Saint Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi at the beginning of the twentieth century [4] St Augustine of Hippo In ‘The City of God’ written early 5th Century